Ergonomics for Remote Workers


If you are a remote worker, you might be wondering whether you need to worry about ergonomics in your home office.

If you are a remote worker, ergonomics is just as important as if you were working in an employer’s office.  By adopting proper ergonomics, you can work comfortably, avoid injury, and improve your productivity.

There are many potential ergonomics issues in your home office, and just as many solutions for these problems.  Keep reading to learn about ergonomics, how you can benefit from it, and what steps you should take to setup your home office.

What is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the science of enhancing worker productivity.  To improve worker productivity, employers and employees should pay attention to the design of the workplace, the tools used, and the work processes in place.

Example

To assemble a product, a worker needs to walk back and forth several times across the floor of a large manufacturing building to gather parts.

To improve productivity, the manager moves the necessary parts closer to the worker, so that he does not need to walk as much, thus improving his productivity.

Ergonomics has evolved in recent years to include workspace design that prevents workers from injury.  Since injured workers work more slowly (or not at all!), preventing injury will naturally improve productivity.

Who Benefits from Ergonomics?

Workers, employers, and insurance companies all have an incentive to see businesses adopt sound ergonomic principles.

Workers

There are several good reasons for workers to adopt good ergonomics.

First of all, improved productivity can mean raises and promotions for an employee.

Also, safe work practices will result in fewer injuries.  This means that workers will not need to miss work, thus decreasing the chance of losing their pay or their jobs.

Employers

Employers also stand to benefit from good ergonomics.  Improved worker productivity means a more profitable company.

Also, when workers are more productive, an employer can increase pay for employees, thus improving company morale.

Finally, improved ergonomics will prevent injuries among employees.  This removes the need to hire and train new employees.  In addition, with fewer injured workers, the company will pay lower premiums for workers’ compensation and other insurance.

Insurance Companies

Improved ergonomics means that insurance companies will have fewer claims to sort through, making it easier to identify fraud and prevent abuse.  This will lower costs for the insurance companies, which will bring lower premiums to the marketplace.

What Can You Do to Improve Ergonomics?

There are a few principles to keep in mind if you want to improve ergonomics in your workspace:

  • don’t perform a task too many times
  • don’t stay in a position for too long
  • use the most comfortable tools available for the job
  • audit your workflow for productivity and efficiency

Below, I have included some examples of how you can adopt some of these principles in practice.

This first example shows how we can avoid performing a task too many times.

Example

Alex is constantly copying and pasting between documents and spreadsheets for his job.

Instead of clicking repeatedly, Alex can use keyboard shortcuts to copy (Ctrl + C) and paste (Ctrl + V).

Alex could also buy an ergonomic mouse with copy and paste buttons, which would make his work more efficient – and much easier on his hands, wrists, and arms.

If you want to learn more about the ergonomic equipment I use when working remotely, check out my resources page.  You can also check out my article on why you should use an ergonomic mouse.

This next example shows how to avoid staying in the same position for too long.

Example

Bob sits in a chair at his desk all day, either writing or typing on his computer.

Instead of sitting all day, Bob can buy a dual standing and sitting workstation, to switch between the two modes during the day.

Bob could also use a treadmill or exercise bike during part of the day.  While he gets some light exercise, Bob can use speech recognition software to record his thoughts, instead of typing.

In addition, Bob could set aside regular breaks (1 minute every 15 to 20 minutes) to stop working and stretch or do jumping jacks and pushups.

The next example shows how you can make sure that you are using the most comfortable tools for the task at hand.

Example

Carl works in a restaurant, where he needs to cut many different vegetables each night.

One thing he should do is make sure that he is using the best knife for each particular type of vegetable.

Another thing he can do is to make sure he is using a non-slip cutting board.

Finally, Carl can look into some type of machine that will do some of the high-volume vegetable cutting for him.

Of course, every worker can audit his workflow to improve ergonomics.  This means thinking about how to minimize repetitive actions or go about doing things in a way that is more efficient.

Companies and health insurance companies should also encourage smart ergonomic behavior by educating workers about best practices before they become injured.

Companies can also offer incentives or benefits to employees to provide the best ergonomic equipment to improve productivity and safety.  They can also create guidelines and recommendations for all employees, based on what has worked for others.

Of course, these guidelines act as a starting point only – each person will have different ergonomic needs.

Ergonomic Problems & Solutions

There are numerous challenges to contend with when trying to practice sound ergonomics.  Luckily, there are plenty of ways to solve these problems and preserve your health while increasing productivity.

Awkward Positions and Contortions

Sometimes, we all sit in awkward or uncomfortable positions while working.  This is especially likely if you are deep in thought, such as when a computer programmer is thinking hard about how to write the best code for a task.

If left unchecked, these awkward postures can cause long-term problems, including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and other problems.

Luckily, there are a few ways to avoid or minimize the use of awkward positions.

First, wear an elastic band, and “snap” yourself – hard! – anytime you catch yourself sitting in an awkward position or working in a way that is uncomfortable.  This could mean:

  • slouching
  • sitting with poor posture
  • holding your arms in a fixed position for too long (such as holding a phone to your ear)
  • craning your neck to hold a phone

Anytime you do one of these things, snap that elastic band to condition yourself to stop doing it!

You can also set a timer to take frequent breaks, so that you aren’t sitting in an awkward position for hours on end.

I like to use my phone to set alarms every 15 minutes.  Then, you can hit snooze on the alarm each time it goes off, do a minute of stretching and exercise, and continue with your work.

This only adds up to about 4 minutes per hour, or half an hour in a standard work day.  However, your improved productivity will more than make up for the exercise breaks.  If need be, you can make up the time by working a little later.

Height of Feet

Believe it or not, the height of your feet when you are sitting can be an important factor in ergonomics.  If your feet are too high up (not exactly touching the ground), then your chair is probably too high.

If you can adjust the chair, make the change so that your feet rest comfortably on the ground when you sit.  If the chair doesn’t adjust, get a new one, or find some type of footrest that you can put under your desk.

While we’re on the topic of feet, make sure that you are wearing comfortable shoes with the proper support.  This is especially true if you use a standing workstation for part of the day.

Remember that you don’t wear cheap shoes – cheap shoes wear you!

Computer Screen Height

Remember that the top of your computer screen should be about level with your eyes.  This is just a guideline – do what is comfortable for you.

Generally, you’ll know if the screen is too low when you get a stiff neck (laptop neck!) from staring down at the screen.

Of course, if you put the laptop on a stand, then the screen might be at the proper height for your eyes, but then the keyboard is too high for your hands and arms.

The solution is to use a USB (or wireless) keyboard and mouse.  You can plug both of these items into a USB multi hub if your computer is short on USB ports.  This might not be the most practical solution at an airport or on the go, but it helps me tremendously when I work at home.

Heavy Satchel

If you use a satchel that you sling over one arm to carry your laptop or other work gear, you might want to reconsider.  This is another awkward posture, and even switching between one shoulder and the other will probably not help.

A better solution is to use a backpack instead, and wear it on both shoulders, to balance the load you are carrying.

Poor Sleep Related to Work

You might be wondering what sleep has to do with ergonomics.  Let me explain.

If you get a poor night’s sleep, you will be less productive the next day.  You might need to keep working late, staring at a computer screen well past dark.

Studies have shown that this “blue light” primes our bodies for a day of being awake – not for eight hours of sleep!  Thus, you will be in for another night of poor sleep, followed by another long day of lower productivity.

The only way to break out of this vicious cycle is to get a better sleep.  To get a better sleep, you need to reduce or eliminate the blue light you are exposed to at night.

One way to do this is to stop looking at computer, television, and phone screens a couple of hours before bed.  Depending on your family and work life, this may not always be practical.

Another way is to install a program on your devices that will reduce blue light.  One such program is f.lux, which you can download here.

Another thing to avoid late in the day is food or drinks containing caffeine or sugar.  Try to finish dinner at least two to three hours before bed – no midnight snacks!  Sometimes, lying down right after eating can be uncomfortable, and you won’t be able to get to sleep right away.

While we are on the topic of things to avoid at night, I should mention exercise.   It is best to avoid exercise late at night, and do your workout early or midday.

A strenuous workout will make it difficult to sleep right afterwards.  However, a good workout in the morning will make it more likely that you will get a good sleep that night.

Unpleasant Work Environment

Even if your work environment is merely uninspiring, as opposed to unpleasant, it can still negatively impact your health and productivity.

There are a few things to consider when setting up your workstation at home.

First, choose paint colors for your walls that make you feel energized, instead of tired or lethargic.

Once you have done that, make sure to use lighting that is appropriate for the task at hand.  You might need lots of light for drawing artwork by hand, but not as much for working on the computer.

Finally, do something to make the space a little more alive and personal.  I like to have plants nearby.  This makes me feel like I am caring for my office when I care for my plants.

It is also a good idea to have pictures of family and friends on your desk or in the room, to remind you of why you do the work that you do.  They can inspire you in tough times and make you feel grateful in good times.

Sedentary Lifestyle

Sitting at a desk or in a car for too long has negative effects on any person’s health.  As mentioned before, you can avoid some of these negative effects by minimizing time spent sitting.  Use a standing desk for part of the day, or use speech recognition software to record some of your thoughts.

For driving, think about how you can minimize the trips you take to reduce your time spent sitting.  If you currently work in an office, see if you can work remotely just one day a week.  Even this small change can have a large positive impact on your health!

For more information on how to start working remotely, check out my article on how to write a telecommuting proposal.

Learn from People who Know

There are plenty of books to read concerning ergonomics for different professions.  You can also ask some of your coworkers to see what works for them – and what doesn’t.

You can also use government resources, such as those provided online by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  You can go here to check out the OSHA website.

You might even be able to convince your employer to pay for employees to take online courses related to ergonomics and best practices.

The selling point is that this training would decrease injuries and downtime for employees, while also improving productivity.  This means a more profitable company, which can then pay employees more, improving morale and productivity – need I go on?

What if I am Already Injured?

If you have already been injured due to poor ergonomics, don’t lose hope!  You can still stage a recovery, or at the very least, adopt a different work flow that will allow you to continue without pain.

Therapy

First, you should consider seeing an occupational or physical therapist.

An occupational therapist can help you to perform tasks you need to do in life and work.  An occupational therapist can help you to determine your goals and work towards them.

A physical therapist can help you to regain physical ability lost due to an injury. This may include specialized stretching and exercises.

Life Balance

You should also make sure that you are living a balanced life.  This means avoiding too much stress, or finding ways to deal with stress more effectively.

One good way of dealing with stress is to start exercising more.  This could mean taking up a sport or an active hobby like hiking or biking.

Eating a good diet goes hand in hand with exercise.  Some people believe that a good diet is even more important than exercise in improving and maintaining health.

If you exercise and eat right, then you will be stronger and better able to recover from injuries, or resist injury in the first place.

As mentioned earlier, getting a good sleep will make you more productive at work, but it will also make you healthier.  Once you start exercising and eating better, you will naturally start to sleep better as well.

Isolation due to working at home can also have a negative impact on your health.  If this describes you, then check out my article on how to avoid isolation when working from home.

Conclusion

I hope this article gave you some ideas about how to improve ergonomics in your home office, or wherever you work from.

Ergonomics is not just about avoiding injury, but also improving productivity.  Living a balanced and healthy life is one of the best ways to do this.

If you have any ideas you would like to share, please leave them in the comments below.

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